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Lip-sync music videos: Pride in the name of dub

Universities are used to competing with each other. But rather than sport, the new battleground is in epic, lip-sync music videos

Forget standing in front of the bedroom mirror singing into a hairbrush. These days, lip-synching along to your favourite song is more likely to be done on a college campus surrounded by thousands of other giddy singers and dancers.

If you do a YouTube search for "lip dubs" you'll see hundreds of high-concept videos of song and dance extravaganzas, often with a cast of thousands, created by students.

The phenomenon has become the latest way for ultra-competitive American and Canadian colleges to express school pride. The videos have made it across the Atlantic to collegs in Britain and Europe, too.

"Lip dub was the coolest thing I'd ever seen," says Andrew Cohen, who is a geography student at the University of British Colombia (UBC) in Vancouver and also director of the latest lip dub success story simply known as "UBC Lipdub" to hit YouTube this month.

Lip dub videos feature people lip-synching to a song before the original audio of that song is then dubbed over the final footage.

But what's special – and particularly difficult – about lip dub is that it is usually filmed in one single, unedited shot, meaning all participants have to be on cue, singing the right words and dancing the rights moves at exactly the right time.

To get them right takes a level of planning, dedication and perfectionism that is probably only achievable by 20-year-olds looking for something to do instead of an 1,800-word essay on city planning. UBC's video features underwater scenes, aerial footage from a helicopter and a cast of over 1000 people in fancy dress, lip-synching to Pink's hit "Raise Your Glass", UBC Lipdub's student-made production attracted almost half a million views within four days of its release.

Made using almost $40,000-worth of corporate sponsorship from local companies, the video took six months to plan and five hours to film.

"I was fortunate enough to work on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, so I modelled our system based on what I observed from them," says Cohen.

Lip dubs modelled on the Olympics have come a long way since they first began springing up online in 2004 – the most famous of which featured a middle-aged man dancing alone in his bedroom in front of his webcam – remember "the numa numa dance"? In 2007 Jakob Lodwick, co-founder of video-sharing website Vimeo, coined the term "lip dub".

Since then, the "university lip dub" sub-genre has proved most popular. As videos have gotten longer, more inventive and more spectacular to try and outgun rival colleges.

So, rather than out cheering a rival college's football fans – or stealing their mascot – the latest battleground in school pride comes from who can produce the most ridiculous choreographed routine to "Bad Romance".

Taking inspiration from music videos and musical TV shows such as Glee, secondary school and university students have created an ad hoc lip dub culture which appeals to the competitive spirit of young people. It was this competitive spirit which prompted Laura Fisher, an MA English and Theological Studies student at the University of St Andrews, to direct the UK's first "university lip dub" last year, after watching a lip dub produced by L'Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) in Canada.

Featuring 172 students and filmed to the Black Eyed Peas' hit song "I've Got A Feeling", UQAM's unequivocally feel-good video has racked up 8.5 million views since it was filmed and uploaded to YouTube in 2009.

Fisher says she created her video to show that "although St Andrews has no formal arts courses, we can still give universities like UQAM a run for their money".

Fisher says she "had hoped a lip dub movement would follow in the UK", but thinks "it hasn't really taken off in the same way" as it has done across the Atlantic. She jokingly blames the "British stiff upper lip" for reluctance among UK students to "make fools out of themselves" (a necessary part of the lip dub experience), but still has faith that the concept will find enthusiasts in the UK eventually.

Unlike UBC's big-budget production, Fisher created her own home-made steady cam to film 100 students on campus for her lip dub, which still received 25,000 views in its first week online.

Having completed an internship at a social media firm in the US, Fisher says she is not surprised that lip dub videos have proved to be such a viral success online: "It has great exponential possibility. When you get 100 people in one video, every single one of those people is going to at least share it with one friend and it's easy for that to keep growing." Toni Smith, CEO of digital marketing firm The Viral Factory says she thinks lip dubs are so successful partly because of the popular songs they use (no official video could use these songs without the university buying the "astronomical" rights) and partly because they feature "real people and everybody loves that real factor".

St Andrews and UBC have been quick to embrace their students' lip dub videos as unofficial marketing tools. According to UBC's President, Professor Stephen Toope, the UBC LipDub video forms a "very persuasive picture of our thriving university community for students considering attending".

Bruce Sinclair, Head of MA Advertising at Bucks New University (whose students also produced a lip dub video last year) agrees that a clever lip dub video can boost an university's appeal on a much more accessible level than any glossy prospectus: "Lip dubs give wonderful insights into universities in a non-corporate way and universities are crying out for this kind of positive image."

However, Andrew Cohen stresses that advertising – and the university's image – was not on his mind when he decided to make UBC's lip dub video.

Together with producer and international student Bijan Ahmadian, Cohen says he set out to create a stronger sense of community among UBC students, have a great time, and raise some money for charity.

"I think that our lip dub was so special for the university because it is a completely independent, grass-roots, student-led initiative," he says.

"The most exciting element is the sheer youthful energy of so many people working together and visibly having a great time.

"Fun is infectious."

The best 'lip dub' videos from around the world

* "You Get What You Give" by students at the University of St Andrews, Scotland

Scotland's oldest university may have been in the headlines for the exploits of two former pupils last week, but some of St Andrews' current students did their best to step into the limelight last year when they responded to the US trend for lip dubbing with their own take on the New Radicals hit. ind.pn/StAnLD

* "Into Action" by students at the University of Economics, Poznan, Poland

In 2010 the lip dub ante was upped by another nine-minuter from a cast of Polish students. The UEP students sync-along to Tim Armstrong's "Into Action" as they take viewers on a tour of their university, featuring beach scenes in a college stairway, a panto horse and a giant Oscar statuette. ind.pn/poznanLD

* "Bad Romance" by the Netanya Academic College, Netanya, Israel

Lib Dub makes it to the Middle East, as this video from late 2010, created by students at an Israeli college, pays tribute to – who else? – Lady Gaga featuring jugglers, a Gaga lookalike, a good few men in drag, a Hitchcock-themed disco, a choreographed roller derby and a singing abseiler. ind.pn/NetanLD

* "Harrison Lip Dub" by students at Harrison High School, Georgia, USA

Lip Dub goes to high school in this video created by American teens, uploaded at the beginning of April. Created in partnership with Sources of Strength – an organisation that helps depressed school students, the Harrison High cast sing along to songs by Jimmy Eat World and All-American Rejects. ind.pn/HarrLD

* "Libdub en FCOM Navarra" by students at the University of Navarra, Spain

It's not all Lady Gaga... as communications students at Spain's University of Navarra proved when they used English singer Rocky Sharpe's late 1970s number 14 smash hit "Rama Lama Ding Dong" to create their lib dub. The obscure doo-wop number soundtracks some shaky camera work as the students tour their department's concrete building, which is full of cardboard cut outs and terrible dancing. ind.pn/NavLD

Will Dean